HBCUs are America’s National Treasures

Oct 26, 2016

WASHINGTON - U.S. House Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (SC) published the following op-ed on the Diverse Issues In Higher Education today:

The legacy of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is one of significant courage and steadfast determination. HBCUs are among America’s national treasures that must be preserved and protected for future generations.

HBCUs are some of the most important historic educational institutions in our country. Many of them have buildings and sites on their campuses that have existed for over a century. Unfortunately, many of the historic buildings and sites on these campuses have deteriorated over the years and are at risk of being lost completely if not preserved and protected.

In 1998, at the request of the Congressional Black Caucus, the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) surveyed 103 HBCU campuses to identify the historically significant sites on these campuses and project the cost of restoring and preserving these properties. The GAO identified 712 historic buildings and sites, and projected a cost of $755 million to restore and preserve them.  Each of these sites has national significance to American history, and I believe we have an obligation to be stewards of these cultural treasures.

Congress first authorized grants to HBCUs for historic preservation in 1996. In 2003, Congress expanded the program and authorized $10 million annually for five years. Last month, the House passed legislation to extend that authorization at the same level for an additional seven years. These historic preservation grants have had transformative effects on HBCU campuses across the country.

Arnett Hall at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, was designed by an African American architect and constructed by the university students themselves in 1891. Before being restored, Arnett Hall had been boarded up for nearly 40 years. Testifying before the Committee on Natural Resources earlier this year, Claflin University’s President, Dr. Henry Tisdale spoke of the tremendous impact the restorations of Ministers and Tingley Halls have had on his institution.

Last June, Allen University rededicated the historic Chappelle Auditorium on campus, which was painstakingly restored thanks to funding from this program. Originally built in 1925, this building was central to the cultural life of African Americans in South Carolina for generations.

In 1947, Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine attended an NAACP event at Chappelle Auditorium that inspired him to organize Black families in Clarendon County to petition their school district to provide buses for black students who, at the time, were forced to make a daily walk of 9.4 miles to school. This case, Briggs v. Elliot, precipitated the frontal attack on segregation in the country and was later combined with four other cases that became Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas  at the U.S. Supreme Court. Overturning the “separate but equal” fallacy, Brown ended legal segregation throughout America.

Historic buildings and sites at 59 HBCUs in 20 states have benefitted from this program. However, the threat to the historic legacy of HBCUs persists. Despite the need, since 1996, only $60 million in federal support has been provided through the HBCU Historic Preservation Program.  Moreover, since 2009, no dedicated federal support has been provided at all for this purpose. Thus, the federal government’s investment to date represents a small share of the documented need.

The House-passed legislation will renew our nation’s commitment to the stewardship of this critical aspect of American history. When the Senate returns after the elections, it must pass legislation to provide at least $5 million for HBCU Historic Preservation.

UNCF has long said that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” So too, our nation must not let the historic legacy of HBCUs go to waste. We urge Congress to preserve HBCUs, America’s national treasures, by funding the HBCU Historic Preservation Program.

Click here to see the article on the Diverse Issues In Higher Education website.